Acts 1:6-14; John 17:1-11

There is so much going on at this time of year.  The weather is warmer so it’s nice to get outside.  It’s a good time for gardening or deferred maintenance around the house—don’t forget to clean out your dryer vent, by the way.  Baseball, soccer and other sports are kicking into high gear.  Schools are having finals and graduations.  People are taking vacation or planning vacation.  Last week was Mother’s Day.  Next weekend is Memorial Day weekend—we’re already seeing ads for the sales.  When you add in Congregational Meetings, birthday celebrations and a retirement party it’s easy for something important to be overlooked.  Something like, say, the Ascension of Jesus.

The Solemnity of the Ascension of Jesus Christ, also called Ascension Day, was on Thursday.  It’s always on a Thursday because it always comes 40 days after Easter.  Because it’s always on a Thursday, it often gets overlooked.  Fortunately, we have the option of commemoration the Ascension on the 7th Sunday of Easter.

The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts are written by the same author—let’s just go ahead and call him Luke—and Luke thought that the Ascension was so important that he wrote about it twice.  The Gospel of Luke ends with the Ascension as a kind of preview of coming attractions, and the Acts of the Apostles begins with the Ascension.  By ending his gospel with the Ascension, Luke was telling us that this event marked the end of the earthly ministry of Jesus.  By beginning the book of Acts with the Ascension, Luke is telling us that the Ascension marks the beginning of the mission of the followers of Jesus.

The 7th Sunday of Easter/Ascension Sunday is a transition point between the energizing excitement of the resurrection and the energizing empowerment of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  It’s a time to stand for a moment with the disciples as they stood at a transition point between their work of learning from Jesus to their work of teaching the Way of Jesus.  

It’s a good time to remember the power and importance of transitions.

In today’s gospel lesson from John 17, Jesus prays for his disciples, and by extension for us.  He says that we belong to him, that we are a gift the Father has given him.  We belong to him and we also belong to the Father, which Jesus would have us understand is one and the same thing.  

Jesus says that he is glorified in his followers.  The Message translates it as “my life is on display in them,” and I think that’s a useful way for us to think about what it means for Jesus to be glorified in us.  His life is on display in us.  He asks the Father to protect us.  And then he ends this part of his prayer by asking that we may be one as he and the Father are one.

“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

In today’s reading from the first chapter of Acts, we get Luke’s fuller account of the Ascension.  The Message nicely captures the clueless confusion of the disciples as they stand at a transition point that will radically change their lives:  “When they were together for the last time they asked, ‘Master, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now? Is this the time?’” 

Isn’t that just so like us.  You would think that after all they’ve seen, all they’ve been through, they might have learned to sit tight and see what comes next, but they can’t let go of their pet vision, their favorite idea, their fondest hope.  We have that same problem sometimes, don’t we?  We bring up our agenda before Jesus has a chance to show us what comes next.

Jesus is surprisingly blunt in his response to them.  He wants them to know that God’s agenda is broader than restoring Israel as an independent earthly kingdom.  He wants them to be ready to move out into the whole world.  He wants them to get the whole idea of the “Kingdom of Israel” –Israel as another political and military world power—out of their heads to make room for the world-wide Kin-dom of God.  He wants their minds and hearts free for what comes next, for the work he’s calling them to do.  

Once again, Eugene Peterson captures not just the words but the mood of Jesus’ response in The Message:  “He told them, ‘You don’t get to know the time. Timing is the Father’s business.  What you’ll get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world.’”

“These were his last words. As they watched, he was taken up and disappeared in a cloud. They stood there, staring into the empty sky. Suddenly two men appeared—in white robes! They said, ‘You Galileans!—why do you just stand here looking up at an empty sky? This very Jesus who was taken up from among you to heaven will come as certainly—and mysteriously—as he left.’”

You Galileans!  Why do you just stand there looking up at an empty sky?  You Galileans.  You People from anywhere and everywhere… why do you just stand there looking up at an empty sky?  Jesus will be back.  In God’s own good time.  In the meantime, there’s work to do…and it’s not up there in the sky.

So why did the resurrected Christ ascend to heaven and leave us here to slog on without him, especially knowing that sometimes it was going to be so difficult and so painful?

Maybe we can think of Ascension Day as Graduation Day.  If he had simply stayed with us here forever, maybe it would have stunted our growth.  We would always be waiting for him to identify every problem and propose every solution.  We would always be asking him what we should think.  We would be like the spoiled kids who never develop any life skills who end up living the rest of their in their parents’ spare room or basement.  

The Ascension is Graduation Day.  It’s the day Jesus hands us the keys.  It’s the day we become adults in the faith and responsible partners in the mission and ministry of healing the world.

Jesus taught us everything we need to know.  He gave us the Holy Spirit—so we’re not really ever without him at all.  And now, with the knowledge Christ gives us, with the love he instills in us, and with the guidance of the Spirit, he wants us to master our own lives and take on God’s work.  

We are now God’s tools for transforming the world so that God’s reign may come on earth as it is in heaven.  Christ’s work has become our work.  Rebuilding the world on Christ’s ethic of love, grace and forgiveness is our priority.  

That means that we have to be clear about what Christ’s ethic of love looks like in practical terms in this world.  How do we live out the beatitudes of Matthew 5?   How do we learn to see Christ in the needs of our neighbor as in Matthew 25?   How do we embrace the mission of Luke 4 and Isaiah 61: “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor”?  How do we live out the values Luke 6, “blessed are the poor, but woe to those who are rich” in our personal lives, and in our life together as the church, and in our life as a society, a culture and a nation?  How do we witness to our Ethic of Love, compassion and caring for the neighbor and even instill these values into our systems without imposing our religion on others, but at the same time being clear that our faith is, for us, the source of these values?   

Figuring this out, answering these questions, takes prayer and discernment.  It takes time and discussion.  It takes time together beyond Sunday worship and coffee.  If we’re really going to live as witnesses to the love, the power, and the Way of Christ it means we take time together to examine our church, our community, our world and our nation through the lens of Christ’s commandment to love one another.

I mentioned earlier that Memorial Day is coming up.

I remember Memorial Day picnics at Salemsborg Cemetery in Kansas when I was a kid.  There would be a prayer and a brief speech by the pastor and a hymn or two.  People would visit the graves of their loved ones and plant flags on the graves of veterans.  Special attention was given to those who had died while serving.   I remember how my dad, who was usually pretty talkative in large gatherings, was quiet and introspective at these Memorial Day picnics, and I imagine he was thinking of all his friends in his B-24 Bomber group, especially the ones who never came home from the war.  

“Greater love has no one than this,” said Jesus. “To give up your life for your friends.” 

That truth was old even when Jesus said it.  He was applying it, of course, to his own sacrifice for all of us and the sacrifice we should all be willing to make for each other.  But it was something every soldier already knew and took to heart because soldiers have been giving up their lives for their friends for millennia—for crown, country and cause, of course, too, but deep at the root of it, mostly because they have believed that it’s what is necessary to protect family and friends.

That is the root that Jesus taps into with his Ethic of Love—that God-instilled instinct within us to give ourselves to each other and for each other in a cause that’s greater and more noble than our own selfish interests.  When Jesus calls us to “love one another even as I have loved you,” he’s asking us to find that God-given well of instinctive altruism inside ourselves and to drink deeply from it.

Every gravestone of a soldier or sailor or flyer killed in service is a marker both of the triumph and the failure of this Ethic of Love.  It is a triumph because it stands as a witness to ultimate self-sacrifice.  And as Jesus said, there is no greater love.  It is a failure because we have not yet succeeded in creating a world where we care about each other enough to free each other from the devastation of armed conflict and violence.  

“You will be my witnesses,” said Jesus.  You will be my witnesses that there is a better way.  You will bring love and grace and forgiveness to a world filled with violence, greed and fear.  You will meet the world’s anger and hate with forgiveness, peace and love.  You will meet the world’s fear and greed with grace, hope and generosity.

You Galileans… you people… you followers of Christ, why are you staring up at the empty sky?  There’s work to do.  In Jesus’ name.

Rise Up

The Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord was on Thursday, but since most of us aren’t in the habit of going to church on Thursday, and since Lutherans and other protestants don’t really know what a Feast day is anyway, we moved it to Sunday.  So, Ascension Sunday.  Except that it’s really still the 7thSunday in Easter.  Also this is Memorial Day Weekend when everyone is out of town in their RVs or boats, or out shopping at those great Memorial Day sales, so maybe not so many are attending this Feast.  

The Feast of the Ascension.  It’s almost as if we really didn’t want anybody to notice it.  Ascension? Uh… yes.  Isn’t that mentioned in the Creed?  Ascended into heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father…  and… he will come again with special coupons for everything you need for your Memorial Day barbeque.  No?

I have to confess that I’ve always had a little trouble taking the Feast of the Ascension seriously.  The way the Jesus ascending is described in Luke and Acts always felt a little cartoonish to me.  In my imagination I keep seeing it like a Terry Gilliam animation like the ones he did for Monty Python, with Jesus suddenly rising up from the ground then catching a ride out of town on a nearby cloud. 

I realize that’s not the best way for a pastor to be thinking about a significant event in the life and ministry of Jesus, an event so significant that it is included in the Creeds, so I’ve made an effort to think about it more seriously.  After all, the Ascension of Jesus has real significance for those of us who are followers of Jesus.  It deserves some thoughtful attention. 

The Ascension marks a turning point in the way God engages with humanity—with us.  For a very long time, God engaged with us infrequently through prophets like Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah and Micah.  They gave us Torah—the teachings—with all the basic information needed to build good relationships and a just society, and occasional corrective advice and direction.  And encouragement.  Worship in the temple and reading the scriptures in the synagogue were formative community experiences that reminded the people that they lived in the covenant of God’s teachings, that God was with them, and that their relationships with each other and with God were important. 

Then came the Incarnation.  God entered human history as one of us in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.  Jesus came to expand on the teachings of the law and the prophets, to confront human systems based on greed and oppressive power dynamics, to renew our relationship with God and expand our understanding of God and to teach us not to be afraid of God.  As Richard Rohr says, Jesus didn’t come to change God’s mind about us, Jesus came to change our mind about God.  Most importantly, Jesus came to proclaim that the reign of God had begun—that a human society structured on God’s values was being inaugurated and was within reach. 

So after going to all the trouble of incarnation and living a fully human life from start to finish, after challenging our religious and political and economic systems and suffering the most extreme consequences for doing that, after training disciples, after being crucified and then resurrected—after all that, why would Jesus just up and leave? 

I can think of two reasons, and they’re connected to each other.  First, I think Jesus ascended, returned to his trans dimensional life, because it was time for the kids to grow up and go out on their own.  The kids being us.  God decided it was time to engage with the humanity in a new way.  Instead of working and speaking through only one person, God was now going to engage the world through multiple persons by endowing us with the Holy Spirit.  And for that to happen, Jesus had to step back so we could step forward.  His disciples and followers would never fully take the responsibility of renewing and transforming their world if Jesus was still handy in person to arbitrate disputes, point the way through dilemmas, and make all the tough decisions.  

Jesus had prepared them for this.  Luke says he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.  He reaffirmed the key points of what he had been teaching them, telling them that repentance, metanoia,and forgiveness of sins was to be proclaimed to all peoples.  Then he told them to go back to Jerusalem and wait for his signal.  “Stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high,” he says in Luke.  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” he says in Acts.

During that time of waiting in Jerusalem, the disciples prayed together, sang together, worshiped together, and ate together.  They created a model for the followers of Jesus that we still follow in many ways.  This life together was part of their preparation for the work that lay ahead.  Through all this they continued to remind each other of their discipleship experiences with Jesus, sharing what they had learned and imagining how they might apply that knowledge.  Though they probably didn’t realize it, they were building a foundation of community to fortify their relationships with each other and to build the mutual support that they would rely on to carry them through the challenging days ahead.

Jesus ascended so we could carry on the work of transforming the world as we are  empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit and enriched by our life together.  

I think the second reason Jesus ascended is that he had taught us everything we need to know to live a whole, healthy and helpful life.  These were the same lessons that we are called to share with the rest of the world: 

  • If someone lashes out at you, let it go.  Turn the other cheek. 
  • Don’t curse your enemies, pray for them instead. In fact, don’t stop there—love your enemies. 
  • Forgive and you will be forgiven.  
  • Do not judge and you will not be judged.  
  • Treat others the way you would like to be treated. 
  • Share—if you have an extra coat, give it to someone who doesn’t have one.  If you have 5 loaves and two fish pass it around to the multitude in front of you.
  • Give something to everyone who asks.  
  • Don’t make yourself crazy worrying about how you’re going to get by.  God knows what you need and God will take care of you.  
  • Don’t embrace violence or the tools of violence.  Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.
  • And most important of all, love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.  That’s what all the law and the prophets were about.  Love each other.

Much of what Jesus taught was a restatement of what God had been trying to teach us from the beginning.  Jesus, himself, said, he had come to fulfill what the law and the prophets had been saying all along.  Jesus embodied what the prophet Micah had said 700 years before him, “God has told you what is good, people.  And what does God require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”  Or as Eugene Peterson translated it  in The Message Bible:  “God has already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously—take God seriously.”

What else was there to teach?  All the bases had been covered.  So it was time for Jesus to return to the place he called “My Father’s House.”  As one of my friends said, “The Feast of the Ascension celebrates the day that Jesus started working from home.”  

Jesus started working from home.  But he promised that we wouldn’t be left like orphans.  Yes, the work of the kingdom was now in our hands, but we wouldn’t have to do it alone.  He promised that the Holy Spirit would be with us and in us to guide us and prompt us and remind us of what Jesus taught us.  “I have said these things to you while I am still with you,” he says in the Gospel of John.  “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. … Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” 

The book of Acts tells us that while the disciples were gazing up toward heaven and watching Jesus ascend, two men in white robes suddenly stood by them and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  

Why do y’all keep looking up toward heaven?  Your work is down here.  Jesus will be back when the time is right.

Our work is down here.  And God knows we could be doing better.  War is still erupting all over the world even because people are greedy or sometimes because people are so convinced that their way of seeing the world is the only way and that people who see it another way must be eliminated. Or conquered.  Or controlled. People are still turning to self-medication in huge numbers because life for many is meaningless and painful or frightening…or just plain boring.   Whole groups of people are oppressed by other whole groups of people because we have made gods of power and competition and money instead of following the God of love and cooperation.  The planet itself is crying out in pain and becoming less habitable because we have trashed it instead of loving it and taking care of it and learning our proper place in the interconnected, intricate, and beautiful web of creation. 

In the church, the place where the followers of Jesus should be replenished and renewed for our work in the world, we are putting ourselves out of business with overthought, overwrought and exclusionary theologies that are long on structure and order but short on the love and teachings of Jesus, with patriarchies and hierarchies that Jesus never intended, and with abuse of authority and just plain abuse. 

In a week like this past week when a devastating mass shooting of school children is bookended by a convention of the Church of The Holy Gun in the same state, when yet another Christian denomination is revealed to have been covering up sexual abuse by its clergy and leaders, when once again a small cadre of politicians managed to block legislation that would make the country safer for all of us, it’s really tempting to gaze up to the heavens and hope that the next cloud that floats overhead will be carrying Jesus back to us to fix everything once and for all.

But that isn’t happening.  Jesus is still in heaven, working from home.  Which means that the work of transforming the world through love is still very much in our hands.  It’s time for us to rise up.  It’s time for us to ascend, not to a cloud that will take us away from it all, but to our feet taking us into it all—into the world with the ministry of love, healing, and transformation that Jesus has left in our hands.

God has told us how to live and what to do.  Do justice.  Love kindness.  Walk humbly with God and with each other.  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Love yourself.  Love the world that God has given us.  Love it into peace and wholeness one person at a time.  And listen to the Holy Spirit reminding us of everything Jesus said.